In 1997, when I arrived at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University to study history, the Bharatiya Janata Party was on the rise. The party had formed a 13-day government in 1996 and was widely anticipated to be on the cusp of power.
On campus, however, it was Marxism that dominated discussions. A number of left organisations had student branches in the university; among them were the Students’ Federation of India, the All India Students’ Federation, the All India Students’ Association and even the extreme left Democratic Students’ Union. These bodies would organise activities to take stands on a variety of issues from those specific to campus (demands for more student hostels), to the national (the 1997 killing of Dalits by the Ranveer Sena in Bihar), to the global (foreign policies of the United States). They held torchlight processions, pasted walls with leaflets and posters, and often rent the night air with shouted slogans.
But while communists of various hues held sway, the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad—the RSS’s student affiliate—was a tough challenger. The ABVP was ensured a steady stream of 800-odd votes every year in the student body elections, usually enough to win it one of the four major positions.
I chose to join the ABVP. I was brought up in Jaipur in the late 1980s and 1990s, a time in which India witnessed its first surge of Hindu nationalism in politics. Nationalism was something I saw as unquestioned from the early days of my childhood. My father worked as a CRPF officer and I grew up with symbols of Hinduism and the Indian state all around. I had been brought up on Amar Chitra Kathas—comic books that told stories of freedom fighters and Hindu mythological figures. Our adolescent years saw the rise of the Ram temple movement, with slogans supporting the building of a temple at Ayodhya inscribed on walls, and saffron flags fluttering atop shops. I remember being stirred by audio tapes of Sadhvi Rithambhara’s speeches at friends’ places. The speeches denigrated Islam and spoke about the need for Hindus to assert themselves. This was the world I knew and trusted, and, when I heard left activists in JNU talk about the rights of, say, Kashmiri separatists, it sounded like treason.
Students in JNU’s history centre divided informally along class lines early on. Apart from a few exceptions, those from elite colleges like St Stephen’s in Delhi and Presidency in Kolkata turned left, while those from small towns were splintered among the left, the ABVP and the Congress’s student wing, the National Students’ Union of India. Apart from my background, it also seemed to me that falling in line with the left would mean acceptance of this intellectual hierarchy. Spurning the system seemed enticing.